Former CIA director for Balkans, Steven Meyer: America accepts border change in Balkans

Balkans is at the crossroads, and its future direction depends mostly on the leaders of individual countries in the region. If they acted as genuine leaders, and not as “subjects” of the West, there would be progress, especially since there was a significant change in the US policy towards Kosovo and the whole region.

This is what Steven Mayer, former deputy chief of the CIA for the Balkans and today the dean of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security, says in an exclusive interview for the Vecernje Novosti daily.

“The United States turned to the Middle East and Russia, so the Balkans does not rank that high in the priorities like in the 1990s. Furthermore, the Trump administration deeply values the right to self-determination at the local level. Although, for the most part, the official policy towards the Balkans is just an inert remnant from the past, the new administration believes that it is up to you to decide. This is a real opportunity for your leaders,” says Mr Meyer.

You say that the leaders should decide for themselves, but many officials from the US State Department and the US intelligence are dealing with the Balkans on a daily basis?

“The history of the Balkans is like that. The US and Russia have been focusing on this area as if we have a new Cold War in the making. There are Russian interests in Nis and elsewhere, and the United States is doing the same in other places. NATO is clashing with the Russians and wants Serbia to join the Alliance. Luckily, President Vucic said: “No!” And that’s the right decision to make. At the same time, psychology in these areas is deeply rooted in the belief that someone else always makes decisions on your behalf. The idea that you can make your own decisions is rarely acceptable. For 20 years I’ve been saying, “You need to rely on yourself!” You always keep asking me: “What does Washington want?” And my answer is always the same: “What do you want?” Milorad Dodik is the politician who understands this best. He is rejected, even sanctioned by Washington, but that does not affect him much. I think that much can be learned from Tito, who knew how to balance fear, politics and economy.”

For over 20 years, you have opposed Washington’s official views, advocating the idea that the current borders in the Balkans are unsustainable.

“The problem lies with the State Department and the diplomats who have been working in this region for decades and have established an official stance. But that’s changing now. I do not believe that Washington would oppose border change if the leadership here wanted to do that. But Germany would object to that because it fears instability. The British are still indecisive (50/50). The EU would accept the solution if it was implemented peacefully. My argument has always been that the borders are not sacred. Thaci and Vucic talk about demarcation, which is, in fact, a change of borders. I have been saying for 20 years that this should happen. I told my Serbian friends that they must understand that most of Kosovo could not be given back to Serbia, because that implies another war. But the area north of the Ibar River is a whole different story.

 What are the elements of this plan?

As far as the southern part of Kosovo is concerned, Serb communities have a choice – they can either stay or move. If they decide to move, they need help from the UN refugee programme. For those who want to stay, they must come under the UN protection and the situation should be examined at least twice a year, so no discrimination takes place. The same applies to the Albanian population north of the Ibar. It is also necessary to negotiate about the majority Albanian areas in the Presevo Valley. Plus, there has to be a referendum in the Republic of Srpska (RS) with three available options – RS should in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or it should become independent, or join Serbia. This would make the countries more homogeneous.”

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What will then happen with the Croatian aspirations towards Bosnia and Herzegovina?

“The Croatian population in Bosnia and Herzegovina is decreasing, but there are parts of the country in which the Croats should have a referendum on joining Croatia. This leaves room for the creation of a small Bosniak country. It would not be smaller than Kosovo and I think that the Muslim population should be protected there, just like Serbs in the south of Kosovo, and the Albanians north of the Ibar.

That opens an issue with Greater Albanian aspirations too.

“I often hear Serbs say that they cannot allow the formation of Great Albania. My answer to that is: “What are you afraid of?” You are stronger and wealthier than Albania. The Ohrid Agreement is more or less upheld, but also there should be a referendum on what kind of system the people want. If everything is done peacefully, over the years, through negotiations, and most importantly, if the great powers remain on the sidelines, all this is quite feasible. You can say to Washington: “We want a good relationship with the United States, but this is a local problem.”

Could you picture Washington not wanting to interfere with such processes?

“If Belgrade maintains a firm stance also towards Berlin and Moscow, then why not?!”

Does that sound rather unusual considering the complicated situation ahead of the elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the referendum in Macedonia?

“I can feel the tension, but when everything is over, and six months have gone by, let’s see what the leaders in the region are going to be like. President Vucic is able to balance between the West and Russia because Serbia has interests on both sides. Things should be done step by step.”

Are there Washington officials who share your views?

“Yes, we have them in the White House. Most of the Congress is not at all interested in these issues, but some congressmen are. Experts are divided, but this is a debate that has been going on for 20 years. When John Bolton said: “Let them do what they want to do!” some of the experts were horrified, others applauded. Personally, when it comes to this, I agree with Trump’s administration. This should be done quickly because 2020 and the new US presidential election are not that far away.”

How much resistance to “deep state” is there in Trump’s administration?

“The Deep State is a slogan conjured up by the far right in the US that that refers to the bureaucracy opposing Trump. The opposition to Trump does exist, but if you ask me whether the entire “deep state” is united in that opposition, I would say that that is not the case. There is no united opposition in Washington. US government agencies and departments are constantly fighting each other. There were at least two instances in my career when Richard Holbrooke tried to fire me because I and some of my colleagues were opposed to what he was doing.”

What exactly did you oppose?

“The US goal for Bosnia and Herzegovina was to have a democratic, multi-ethnic state. During and after Dayton, Holbrooke was shocked when we told him that Dayton did exactly opposite of what it stood for, i.e. it only augmented ethnic differences. I have been saying since 1995 that Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a country, but a fictitious state, because the real power is in the hands of ethnic communities, not the government in Sarajevo.”

Is it possible for small countries to have, at the same time, good relations with the United States, Russia and China without suffering for it?

“I think it is. But they need to have in their agencies and ministries people who understand how far they can go, because it is true that the great powers can punish them, because the United States and the Russians have been clashing and fighting in the Balkans. Serbs buy arms from the Russians, Croats from the Americans, and that can be dangerous. It is important that leaders agree on a peaceful settlement of disputes, despite the fact that there will always be someone voting against.”

No impeachment for Trump

Do you think that Trump will be impeached?

“I don’t think so, nor should he. He did not do anything that requires impeachment.”

Does the First Lady, who comes from this region, have an influence on Trump?

“She could have, but that’s difficult to estimate because she does not comment much on public affairs.”


What is your view of the different scenarios regarding the EU reform and where do you see Serbia in all of that?

“It seems that the problems in the EU are not officially recognized, so Serbia’s goal of becoming a member in 2025 seems too ambitious. I do not think this will happen. If the EU does not realize that the Union is so big and dysfunctional, it is not clear whether it will survive in its present form. One problem is finances, other refugees. We are witnessing the rise of nationalist governments in Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy … I wonder if Serbia is better not becoming a member, but rather continuing having special trade ties with the EU. The key question is: “What benefits does Serbia have from the EU membership?” I do not think this has been fully investigated.”

(Vecernje Novosti, 30.09.2018)


Photo credits: Z. Knezevic

This post is also available in: Italiano

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